The Art of Individualism
An artist who sees tragedy in China's monuments.




Last November, QiuZhijie endured a series of personal crises that left him elated and exhausted. The result was another of the mercurial Chinese artist's bursts of creativity — and a cycle of work that tackles some of the most sensitive aspects of modern China.

In Beijing, some of this work is on display at an exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art through May 20 and at a separate show in New York at Chambers Fine Art through May 9. Later this year, Mr. Qiu also will exhibit in Berlin during the German capital's "Asia-Pacific Weeks."

Once a 1990s radical who put on underground shows designed to shock, Mr. Qiu is now considered one of China's greatest contemporary artists. Unlike his forerunners, who completely broke with Chinese tradition by painting in oil and creating repetitive motifs, Mr. Qiu is more comfortable with Chinese themes and uses calligraphy in many of his works.

I met Mr. Qiu in Beijing this month, and after a few hours with him, it's clear how he acquired his reputation. A gregarious, funny man, the 40-year-old talks about philanthropy, political control of art, the strange history of contemporary Chinese art, General Motors, the Nanjing massacre and the green tea market. "His mind," says University of Chicago art historian and curator Wu Hung, is "very fast-moving; it's like a fireworks of the mind."

Breaking open a carton of cigarettes, Mr. Qiu told me the story that led to the Ullens show, "Breaking Through the Ice." Last November, he and his wife had their first child. The Ullens Center had just offered him prime space to exhibit. He was excited and starting to work when his daughter contracted a severe case of jaundice. His doctor's advice: The couple should "get rid of" their baby girl because she would be mentally challenged for life.


Shiho Fukada for The Wall Street Journal

"QiuZhijie: Breaking Through the Ice," is on view at the UCCA through May 25.

"This guy was really bad, really evil and said she would be an idiot so just to dump her somehow," Mr. Qiu says. "So I sat down and wrote my daughter a letter telling her I'd love her even if she became an idiot. I wanted to give her advice against this sort of society."

The exhibition starts in the gallery's entrance with a sinking ship that is surrounded by shards of ice — a reference to the Titanic. Around a corner, the exhibition continues in a gargantuan space, a 2,500-square-meter room with towering walls — a former factory hall in Beijing's 798 Art District. The sinking ship envelops the viewer; the floor is the rising waterline and the objects on it are flotsam. All around, installations refer to aspects of industrial society gone mad. The entire exhibition cost roughly $500,000 and was bankrolled by Taiwanese collector and gallerist Jack Hsu.

On the far wall, 30 three-meter high traditional Chinese scrolls mirror the objects around the room. The scrolls refer to Mr. Qiu's daughter: each one bears her image — the outline of her head, or her naked body observing things — and a couplet of advice to her written in Mr. Qiu's vivid calligraphy. Many warn against the sort of harsh, conventional thinking that almost got her killed. Linking the scrolls is a sketch of a huge bridge that crosses the Yangtze River at Nanjing, its span running from scroll to scroll and the space in between resembling girders.

The bridge and the sinking ship symbolize the evil forces that Mr. Qiu wants to warn his daughter against: Both represent an emphasis on the colossal at the expense of the individual. This is something hardly confined to China, but it does have a long history here — from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square to the Bird's Nest Olympic stadium. His critique goes deeper than any one current form of government, but he sees recent history as having left a tragic series of enormous monuments.

The most powerful is the Nanjing Yangtze bridge. It opened in 1968, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, and was designed and built despite the pullout of Soviet advisers several years earlier. For decades, it was a key symbol of the Communist Party's ability to go it alone and modernize the country. It is also one of the biggest sites for suicide in the world, with more than 2,000 recorded in its 40-year history.

"This makes it rich in symbolism and something I've been researching now for several years," Mr. Qiu says. He waves off a waiter at the Ullens Center caf é , saying their choice of green tea is abysmal, settling instead for a black coffee to back up his steady intake of nicotine. "This was a gigantic project and the cost has been gigantic on people."

At the Ullens show, some of the installations are not entirely convincing, such as rattan chairs and furniture, which symbolizes how nature will triumph over industrial society. But then there are ideas that are breathtakingly inventive. One corner of the room has old bathroom mirrors from the Cultural Revolution adorned with the Nanjing bridge — no Chinese home of that period would have been complete without one. Mr. Qiu has rebuilt the mirrors so water runs from the top to the bottom of them, symbolizing the tears the city's residents have shed for Nanjing's World War II massacres and later suicides.

Then there are installations that are so laden with Chinese meaning that you almost need a degree in Sinology to figure them out — but once the meaning is clear, they are startling. One is a series of flyleaf springs from Chinese trucks. On top of them lies a single reed. The flyleaves are meant to look like waves on the Yangtze. The reed symbolizes the single reed used by a Buddhist monk to cross the river. The entire work is a reference to a famous painting by the Southern Song landscape artist Ma Yuan.

"The ideas never stop," Mr. Qiu says. "That's never a problem I have."

Mr. Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a reporter in the Journal's Beijing bureau.